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Review: I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo) – “Essential and much-needed cinema”

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Some films have the power to connect with audiences on a level so deep and personal that by the time credits roll, the emotional catharsis leaves you stunned. With her first foray into narrative filmmaking, Oscar-nominated documentarian Heidi Ewing achieves that and much more. I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo) is a gorgeous cinematic experiment that blends in documentary and fiction, and the result is a uniquely original piece of cinema exploring complex issues of immigration, identity and the value of human life.

Initially, Ewing had set out to film a new documentary to tell the story of her real-life friends Iván and Gerardo, a gay couple who immigrated illegally in the States from Mexico back in the 90s in search of a better life, only to realise the soul-crushing reality of the American dream. However, as she started filming interviews with the pair and other footage following them in their day-to-day life in New York, she felt that the project was missing the emotional impact of what her friends went through back in Mexico when they met and fell in love as young men.

The filmmaker decided to shift her creative plan by committing to write a screenplay in collaboration with screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga that would dramatize Iván and Gerardo’s past. She would then interweave the scripted sections portraying the couple’s youth with the real-life footage of them in the present. The result may be jarring at times, but the concept is undeniably bold and when you suddenly realise that the older men are the real Iván and Gerardo, not acting but being truthful and vulnerable on camera, it is impossible to not be moved by their incredible story.

Mexican thespians Armando Espitia and Christian Vazquez respectively portray young Iván and Gerardo in the film’s fictionalised sequences and the work they manage to pull off is utterly magnificent. After all, it’s all about love at first sight for this Mexican couple and the actors’ on-screen chemistry is palpable ever since a memorable scene when Gerardo uses a little laser point to attract Iván’s attention in an overcrowded and dilapidated underground gay club in Palma, Mexico. It’s a moment that happened in real life and it’s re-enacted by Espitia and Vazquez with naturalistic beauty.

Iván is an aspiring chef who went to culinary school but is stuck washing dishes at a restaurant in Palma, barely making ends meet. He’s also father to a young boy whom he adores but struggles to spend much time with, given his difficult relationship with the child’s mother. Catholic Mexico is unforgiving with its homophobia and that’s why Iván is still painfully in the closet as he doesn’t want to risk losing his child forever. Meeting Gerardo however is bound to stir things up in the young man’s stigmatised world because love is a force to be reckoned with, ruthlessly pushing for change.

When Iván’s childhood friend Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez) convinces him to join her on the perilous and uncertain journey of illegally crossing over to the States, the couple’s love story becomes a mini-epic saga which inevitably resonates with current events. Iván’s decision isn’t light-hearted, but he makes it anyway out of desperation and clinging to the hope of having a quicker shot at building a better future, even if it means leaving his loved ones behind, including his newly found soulmate. “I need to move myself forward” is what Iván tells Gerardo, who overall is better off than him in Mexico with his teaching career, although he shares Iván’s difficult upbringing when it comes to their sexual identity.

It is heart-breaking to witness their forced separation, particularly when Iván tells Gerardo he is like a little miracle that happened too early in his life. But as the young man manages to cross over to the States, facing the inevitable set of trials and tribulations, his experience in America as an undocumented immigrant is far from the fast-track course correction he was hoping for. And is it a life of loneliness and alienation worth the fight? One of Iván’s lines is emblematic of his journey and of the film’s overall themes: “When you dream, it happens so fast. The American dream happens in slow motion. It takes years.”

And even then, truth is, it might not manifest. Or like in Iván’s case it will entail sacrifices that are not necessarily worth the trade off and can haunt you forever. To this day in fact, Iván is unable to travel to Mexico without the risk of not being let back in America where his hard-earned livelihood is now. Yet his son has been repeatedly denied a visa to the States which means Iván hasn’t seen his now grown-up boy since he left Mexico back in the day. As we see him hurt, we ponder: was it all worth it? That’s the film’s hard question, lingering in our minds as the screen fades to black. And the answer we might conjure up is a work in progress because this is real life and Iván and Gerardo’s journey is still happening every day.

One thing is sure though, I Carry You With Me makes the case for essential and much-needed cinema exploring a narrative where queer characters not only are front and centre, but most importantly are genuinely portrayed and relatable. Whenever I look back at my teenage years, growing up Catholic and closeted in 90s Sicily, it is remarkable to realise the progress that’s been made in terms of queer visibility and representation in media at large. However, mainstream Hollywood still confines us to sidekick clichés for the most part and let me tell you, both as an audience member and a creative writer aspiring to tell authentic LGBTQIA+ stories, this has become frustrating and tiresome. That’s why I applaud Heidi Ewing for crafting a film where I feel seen not because I’m gay but because I’m human.

I Carry You With Me is available to download and keep and to rent on digital platforms.

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